Russell Henley found his second start at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua’s Plantation Course much more to his liking than his maiden voyage last year, where he failed to break 70 and finished 27th in the 30-man field. Henley opened 2015 with a bogey-free, eight-under 65 to take the early first-round lead by a shot over Sang-Moon Bae.
The key to his fine play on Friday was his putting. He needed 27 putts and ranks first in the strokes gained putting stat.
“I kept the ball in front of me pretty decent today, and didn’t scare too many chances at bogey, but my main thing was obviously I putted great and was seeing the lines today,” said Henley in his post-round presser. “If I can putt like that every day, I would probably have a few more wins.”
Henley was 14 out of 14 from putts inside 15 feet.
“I’m confident in my putting,” he said. “I’ve always been pretty confident with it. That definitely doesn’t happen every day for anybody (making all your putts from inside 15 feet), and it’s just one of those days where it happened for me. If I knew how to do that every day, I would do it.
“But it’s just one of those days where things worked out and I was reading the putts correctly and exactly how I wanted to hit them and that led to me making some putts, so that’s all I can say for that.”
Henley is also controlling the ball extremely well, particularly with his off-speed shots (like hitting an 8-iron 140 yards).
“There’s some blind shots and a lot of times you’re hitting down 50 yards or uphill 50 yards and just being comfortable and knowing what’s out there helped me a lot,” he said. “Also, there are a lot of shifts; it can be really slow or really fast. So just being comfortable with those shots is one of the biggest changes just from having a little experience.”
Henley credited his work with swing coach Scott Hamilton for his success, as well. Hamilton, who also teaches Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd, Boo Weekley, Steven Bowditch, among others, started working with Henley last summer and the two made some swing changes, which per usual took time to get acclimated.
“Ever since I’ve gotten comfortable with the things (Scott and I) have been working on fundamentally, I’ve started to keep the ball in front of me more and not have as big of misses and driving the ball better,” said Henley. “When you’re driving it better and hitting your wedges a little better, keeping the ball in front of you better, I feel like I’m really, really confident and feel like I can get the ball in the hole.
“That’s been my biggest thing and just working with Scott, he’s helped me a lot.”
Hamilton worked with Henley on getting the club on plane as previously he had the club too steep and trying to shallow out his swing.
“The biggest thing I did with him was I got him to get the club more vertical and on plane, so that the grip end pointed at the ball on his back swing,” said Hamilton. “Before, he had the club way behind him and picked it up, a lot of arm lift and run-off and was real steep. We shallowed him out a bunch.
“All I care about is if my (players) can play off-speed. (Russell’s) kicking butt at it…His off-speed shots, his chippy shots, which are so critical here, are sick right now.”
When Hamilton arrived in Maui, he made a slight adjustment to Henley’s swing because Henley said he was missing it slightly right.
“Russell was too close to (the ball),” said Hamilton. “The second half of his back swing he was lifting the club up off-plane, so I moved him away from it and made his back swing plane tighter.”
Looks like it’s working pretty well so far. For the rest of the week, Henley plans to avoid watching leaderboards.
“I didn’t look today,” he said. “I’m not going to look — I’m trying not to look the rest of the time and just stick to what I’m doing. I feel like I’ve got a good game plan and what anybody else does isn’t necessarily going to change what I’m going to do the next couple days.”